Breaking down the writings of Micah Posner
Preface: this is a major revision to a post I wrote last week. I have removed that post because Micah Posner suggested that I do that. He asked because he felt it was disrespectful to him and out of line. He was partly right about that. It was somewhat disrespectful... and I apologize to him for going too far. I was not trying to hurt his feelings. I was trying to ridicule something he wrote and chose language that was too personal. However, I am not apologizing for the substance of my post and for the sharp critique I was offering. Micah wrote something that misrepresented me and misrepresented some “facts.” I was frustrated. So I wrote something in a tone that reflected my frustration. What I’ve done below is re-work the original post to make the same points in a less personal way.
A trigger warning first: I will be pointed and critical here. If you hate sharp criticism, stop now and finish your Wordle puzzle instead.
Next, the background: my former City Council colleague Micah Posner wrote an op-ed in the Sentinel on April 14 that was in response to a piece I helped write (but did not write myself) about the affordable housing in the new library mixed-use project downtown (and related topics). If Micah had read the fine print, he would know that I was probably not the principal author of that piece, but he didn’t. Big principles – often very admirable ones in my estimation- are his specialty. But getting the smaller details right did not appear to be his priority when he wrote it. Which, is, of course, what caused me to title this post the way I did: We can really see how activist thinking works through what he wrote.
Here we go... (to slightly paraphrase the great actress Bette Davis: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”) When you notice how long and slow this post is, just remember the old saying: A Falsehood Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Still Putting On Its Shoes. This post is me slowly lacing up my shoes to try and catch up with so much of the misinformation traveling around the community about the Library/Housing/Parking project
The first thing I noticed in Micah’s op-ed is how “fuzzy” the facts seem to be. Here’s an important example: Micah writes that a “luxury hotel, not affordable housing, is the only project currently planned to replace city-owned surface lots used for parking.” One only need look at the Pacific Station affordable housing project (already approved and funded) to see an example of a city-owned parking lot being used for affordable housing. Beyond this...the hotel project he refers to has NOT been approved yet. (Exaggeration and fuzzy facts are a great combo.) The not-yet-approved hotel project is only a “luxury” hotel in Micah’s construction. The proposal is a mid-range hotel—but Micah seems to want to appeal to our “populist” instincts and calling any hotel with queen size beds in it a “luxury” hotel serves his purpose.
Another fuzzy area in this thinking can be seen by quoting this erroneous line that he wrote: “Lane states his support for moving it to the site of the demolished library, essentially trading the library for the market at the cost of $50 to $100 million.” Now... let’s see what my colleagues and I actually wrote: “The city also began a lively and engaging process to hear from the community on preferences for the use of the current library site. Feedback showed a strong preference for affordable housing and community commons that could also be a long-term home for the market. This is a site that could easily accommodate homes for another 75 low-income households.” This might be a place to say “details matter.” But this is beyond just missing a detail. Here we have a case of, as they say, making shit up.
The next feature in his writing that became apparent is the blind spot. He writes: “Recall that we voted for the Measure S parcel tax, the first line of which read: ‘to modernize, upgrade and repair local libraries,’ not to demolish the main branch and rebuild it...” I think he kind of missed the range of meanings of the word “upgrade.” It is totally fair to see one key meaning of upgrade to be something like ‘to improve upon the existing thing’. But when a traveler “upgrades” the car they are renting, that doesn’t generally mean they’re adding a cushion on the driver’s seat. It means getting a different car that is nicer and has more features. When a real estate agent says it’s time to upgrade, they usually mean it’s time to buy or rent a nicer house (even though it could also mean replace the old windows). So... to pretend that language about “upgrade” could not have been understood by the reader to mean a new library is, shall we say, being disingenuous. I would also add that the blind spot caused Micah to miss the following language in the ballot measure description- one that every voter received about what Measure S would finance: “The Facilities shall also include, without limitation, the attributable costs of engineering, design, planning, materials testing, coordination, construction staking, and construction.” If voters didn’t support this kind of flexibility and range of possibilities, they did not have to vote yes. But they did vote yes. Micah voted yes on this language. It’s not the City’s fault that he had – and has— a blind spot that caused him to miss this. The obviousness of this blind spot is even greater when we notice that the same Measure S funding source built two other brand-new libraries in Santa Cruz County -- and those did not seem to cause Micah and his colleagues to be concerned. (Perhaps, the blind spot caused them not to see these two other brand new libraries? Or perhaps they know about the other libraries and their argument is just hypocritical?)
Then there’s the fun, ironic part... I think Micah’s radar on this might not have been working so well (perhaps he needs an irony supplement?) when he wrote that this “ballot Initiative is exactly what it claims to be, an effort to stop designing OUR downtown via a series of back-room deals”. I know he meant to say that the Library Housing Parking project was created in back-room deals. Wow. That would be bad, wouldn’t it? Except that there were so many friggin’ public meetings that led to the current shape of this project over at least 4 or 5 years. For him to toss around “back-room” must be an attempt at humor. (Okay, it’s not really a comedy—it’s fantasy pretending to be drama). Those meetings were open city council meetings, open library committee meetings, open city council committee meetings. The city council committee had several public meetings and open input sessions and ended up publicly voting to recommend the project we have moving ahead now. Even Sandy Brown and Justin Cummings voted in that committee for this project. (Sandy subsequently voted against it at a different public city council meeting.). Okay, I will stop saying public and open so much... but you get the point. So what irony deficiency am I talking about?
Read the key part of Micah's sentence again about his favored initiative: “an effort to stop designing OUR downtown via a series of back-room deals.” He is unintentionally being very honest here. I don’t know if it was Micah’s private living room or Rick’s or John’s or whoever—but it was a series of private meetings that led to the language of this initiative he loves. (Maybe it was a front room or a back yard so I’m sure that makes it better, right?) The people who met in this private places are the people that are designing our downtown via a series of back-room deals" through what is now laid out in the language of this mess of an initiative. I would challenge Micah to name a single public meeting where anyone was invited to comment or contribute to writing the particular plans for parking lots, library sites, farmers’ markets, parking revenue use and so on before the final version of the initiative was written. So... if you don’t want a small, elite group of unelected residents to privately write our downtown plans without you having chance to weigh in on ANY of the details on ANY of these significant subjects—well, you might want to think again about which side of this initiative you’re on.
Side rant: has anyone besides me noticed that no matter how lengthy and engaged and open the public process is on a project or proposal, the side that does not prevail is always able to find a deficiency in that process. In a situation like this, here’s how it works in that kind of thinking: “I am right and righteous in my position going into the discussion of the issue. After the process plays itself out with my participation, I do not prevail despite my rightness. Since I am right, something else went wrong. It must be a flawed process because it didn’t deliver the correct outcome. It’s not possible that others just disagreed with me. There was corruption in the process. Probably a back room deal or someone with lots of money bought the process. Since back room deals and money influence are real things in many political situations, I will simply assume that’s what happened here and tell everyone that I know it to be the case in this situation.” Evidence of corruption is not required because lots of people are already suspicious of corruption. So here we are.
Wait, don’t stop reading yet. (Yes, I do know you’re ready for me to finish.) There’s still a bubble and hot spot to explore in our exploration of Micah’s op-ed.
The bubble is this: Micah cares a tremendous amount about social justice and equity. But he doesn’t seem to see the homeowner bubble he might be in when it comes to this issue. The main public voices on his initiative’s team are homeowners. They care about affordable housing, but it can slip into being an abstraction when it comes to a project like this. It can lead to a statement from Micah that reads: “Affordable housing is merely the chocolate coating on the unsavory package that lies within.” I'd suggest that only a person who has some homeowner privilege (and who is not desperately trying to make it in this rental housing market) would call 125 truly affordable apartments a “coating” on a project. And, then there’s the choice of the word “unsavory” to describe a project that not only includes the crucial housing but also a great library. This is a new library that even critics have acknowledged is not shaping up to be anything like the “monstrosity” they used to think was coming. Wait...I just realized something: a remodeled old library in a mediocre building with some nice improvements and removed defects is the real “chocolate coated” project. (and there really isn’t even much chocolate-- probably just chocolate syrup)
Now we get to the hot spot. It’s a big one. Concern about the heating of our planet is central in Micah’s life and I applaud him for that. (My concern is reasonably large, too, but I can’t claim it’s as large as his.) However, when an area of concern is as large as this one is for him, there are often some foggy areas mixed in. Here are the ideas and facts that seem to get a bit lost in the foggy corners of this issue:
With the current direction of Downtown planning—one that he fears is a grave threat to the future of our planet – there will be something like 50 fewer parking spaces downtown. (This is comparing the number when the new Library structure is completed with the number when the Library project concept was first approved by the City Council.) I’m working on the math here and am hoping he can help me understand how 50 fewer parking spaces is making downtown more car-centric and climate un-friendly.
If a bunch of affordable housing is built downtown in the next several years (let’s use my vision of 200 units between the old and new library site) and 100 of those units are occupied by people who had been driving every day to work from 25 or 50 miles away (and now will take a very short bus ride or bike or walk), what is the greenhouse gas reduction? And how does that compare with the difference between the parking that will exist downtown with the Our Downtown initiative and what will exist if the library projects move forward? I do not know the answer to this one. I do know that the greenhouse gas reduction from the new downtown housing would be significant and could be reasonably well-estimated by a qualified expert. I wonder if there is an expert who could put a number on the reduction associated with fewer parking spaces... and then we could compare those numbers. I will go out on a limb and say that there is probably not a “slam dunk” winner on either side. Which then begs the question: how do the climate activists who oppose the library project know that their position is the right one in terms of greenhouse gas reduction? ("Symbolism" does not strike me as an adequate answer.)
Okay, that last one was somewhat complicated. This one is simpler. The Sierra Club (that Micah and I are both long time members of) has consistently argued that urban density is much preferable to urban/suburban sprawl. The Sierra Club and many other environmentally-minded groups know that paved flat parking lots are a relic of a truly car-centric culture. Removing flat lots and consolidating a moderate amount of parking in one building combined with other uses (such as libraries and apartments) is much smarter in terms of the climate and the earth’s health in general. (see Sierra Club footnote at the end on this one)
Let’s say we maintain the initiative’s proposed status quo for the farmers’ market site. The new housing project on the big parking lot across the street (next to the red church) is taking away the biggest parking area close to the market. (Yes, this affordable housing project is happening in May or June of this year.) Lots of folks do, in fact, drive to the market. Where will they park? I know when I visit downtown on Wednesday afternoons, the parking is already tough. 100 fewer spaces will not help the market in its current location... and all those cars driving around in circles looking for a spot can’t be a plus for our carbon footprint. We all wish everyone would walk or cycle to the farmers market (and to downtown in general) but not everyone does. Speaking of which...
Many climate-conscious people like me are getting old. So instead of driving a lot less (I do drive somewhat less), I drive an electric car downtown when I shop for food. (We have a solar roof at home so driving my electric car downtown has very little climate impact.) I still need to park to support businesses and workers downtown while I meet some of my basic needs. With an aging population in SC and the popularity of electric cars in my demographic, is maintaining a parking space for me and my car a climate problem? I’m thinking it isn’t. I’m not sure why having the City maintain a decent, though reduced, amount of parking would be seen as a climate disaster. (Well, actually I know the answer: because in the political advocate toolbox, this “climate disaster” language will motivate people to vote the “right” way.)
In closing, I will note an overall weak area we can see in Micah’s discourse: it doesn’t seem to be that great with the numbers. Especially the money part. It seems to get muddled on this. It double counts some things when it serves his arguments but then skip other numbers completely when they don’t help him get the totals he wants. He sees plenty of money for the things that are good -- but not enough when it suits his political arguments. Imagination and persuasive language can be good things when used well but making sound policymaking requires logic and reasonable calculations.
My thanks to the Sentinel for publishing Micah’s article to help us gain a better understanding one retired politician’s thinking--and giving my own retired politician mind a chance to stretch (and also be exposed!). And feel free to comment on this somewhat gentler version...and let me know if I succeeded in hitting the proper tone.
*Footnote on Sierra Club:
This is a national Sierra Club policy statement: How we build cities and towns has a profound effect on the causes and impacts of climate change. An essential strategy for reducing urban related carbon emissions is supporting dense, mixed-use communities and land uses that prioritize walking, biking or transit to meet daily transportation needs, as well as balancing jobs and housing within the region. If we make communities not only dense, but inclusive, then fewer people will have to drive till they qualify for housing financing, saving even more emissions. The benefits of sustainable development, also known as smart growth, include saving money for people, governments and businesses, improving public health, enhancing the quality of life, reducing carbon emissions and other pollution, and leaving more pastoral and natural lands in place. [yes, I do see that this emphasizes alternative transportation... and reducing the amount of parking spaces in the new library plan (without the ballot initiative) is doing just that.]